Houston airport chaplains bring ashes, sacraments to travelers

IMAGE: CNS photo/James Ramos, Texas Cat

By James Ramos

HOUSTON (CNS) — When Nick Guarisco landed at Bush Intercontinental Airport on Ash Wednesday morning, he
planned to catch a late afternoon Mass in his hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana,
to get his ashes, but Father Charles Samperi had a different plan.

Stationed outside the
Terminal C Interfaith Chapel March 1, Father Samperi greeted anyone who walked
past. A visible and verbal reminder that it was indeed Ash Wednesday, the
pastor of nearby St. James Catholic Church calmed fears of missed flights:
“It takes just 15 seconds to get ashes,” he’d say.

Hearing this, Guarisco,
23, immediately turned the corner into the chapel where Deacon Paul Pinon
marked his forehead with ashes.

Noting the difficulties
of being a young Catholic in college, the Louisiana State University student
said ashes help him to “stay true to (his) faith and not get off the path.
Now with Lent here, (the ashes) remind you to get prepared.”

In college “there’s
a lot of sin to avoid,” he said. Inspired by the deep faith of his
grandparents, Guarisco wears a scapular given to him by his grandmother. He had
Deacon Ray Odeon bless his brown scapular in the airport chapel.

Travelers like Guarisco
are exactly who Father Samperi, Deacon Pinon and Deacon Odeon want to minister
to at the airport.

People are excited
because people don’t expect to see ashes distributed at an airport, said Father
Samperi, who estimated more than 200 received ashes in a span of two
hours. Flight attendants and captains in between flights, along with local
airport staff and travelers, all took Father Samperi’s invitation and received

Father Samperi’s voice
seemed to rise above the din of rolling suitcase wheels, terminal announcements
and clinking glass from a nearby restaurant.

“We’re glad to be
here at the airport to minister to the people, the travelers,” he said.
Most think travel is always for vacation or for work, but sometimes a death in
the family is a reason for travel, and the chaplains are here for that too, he
said. As part of a Catholic airport chaplain program, Catholic priests like
Father Samperi and deacons offer counseling for those who need it.

Father Samperi said he
heard several confessions, noting he was happy to offer the Sacrament of
Reconciliation, “which is always a blessing.”

Deacon Pinon assisted in
distributing ashes and said both travelers and airport employees were grateful
to have the chance to celebrate Ash Wednesday.

“Sometimes people can’t attend
Mass because of work, so it’s good to minister at the airport,” he told the
Texas Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. “It’s
a form of service to the church and to his people. I’m grateful to be one of
the servants.”

Just outside the chapel,
a passenger said: “I’ve been traveling on Ash Wednesday for the last five
years and I’ve never been able to receive my ashes until today.”

The distribution of ashes
drew dozens to stay inside the chapel, several stopping to say rosaries. A
small space, the chapel offers a handful of pews and a stained glass window for
reflection and quiet in a busy airport that services more than 43 million
passengers annually. Thirteen of the nation’s 15 busiest airports, including
Houston, have dedicated chapels, according to a 2015 Pew survey.

On his way back to
Louisiana, Guarisco opted out of his home state’s Mardi Gras tradition for a
trip to Colorado. He said that in a time when a lot of people his age struggle
with their beliefs, “it’s good to still stay in touch with the

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Ramos is a staff writer and
designer for the Texas Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of

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